The Internship: Part 1

 

I’ve been an intern in China for two weeks now and wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been doing, as well as my initial perceptions of the Chinese work ethic. As a disclaimer, I’m sure it differs industry to industry and this post is only based on my experience and the experiences my fellow interns have shared with me.

I was forewarned when I started that my supervisor wouldn’t be present for the first few days, so was expecting a light workload, but boy was I surprised. There were only four people in the office, as the time of my arrival coincided with everyone else’s holidays and visa runs, so the first week was quite intimate. My supervisor had left one of the girls a short set of instructions telling me to look through the public file to familiarise myself with the company, the website and setting my task for three days.

That three-day task was actually completed in three hours.

At first, I wasn’t sure if something had been lost in translation and I’d be receiving a new task each day, but unfortunately that was the total of what I was given. I had to plan 5-8 blog posts – not even write them, just come up with titles and subtopics. Okay, fair enough, they have no understanding of who I am, what I can do, so it’s quite acceptable to underestimate an unknown intern. But… it didn’t get better.

I planned them paragraph for paragraph, doing a bit of background research for myself and it still only took the first afternoon. As it turns out, I had also done too much, as the blogs should only be around 500 words each and my topics went too in depth. I found this out when my supervisor returned, “wow, you’ve done so much” and I started writing them up. I wrote two in the first morning as these are only short blogs and take less than an hour each only to be told, “wow, you’re so quick!” which is when I started to realise that just because you’re at work for nine hours a day doesn’t necessarily mean you are working for nine hours a day.

Not one to sit and twiddle my thumbs, I have been working on an online communications strategy in my ‘spare time’. This has been quite useful, because although I get the feeling the supervisor doesn’t want to see it, it gives me something to do. I’ve been asking for more tasks and usually get told that there is nothing to do, or if I can wait fifteen minutes they’ll give me one. Fifteen minutes seems to mean 2-3 hours.

This started to improve somewhat in the second week. I now get asked to help research projects! Some are interesting and give me plenty to work on – finding out about the company, the target audience and competition in order to brief the design team – but some aren’t even marketing. I’ve been asked to come up with designs for a client to put on their wall and this is not my area of expertise. I’m not a designer and even when reliant on Google images, I didn’t understand the brief. They want something ‘cool’, but not like that. ‘Modern… you know, something… modern.’ I spent the best part of a day trying to understand the image that my supervisor clearly had in mind, wondering why she didn’t just do it herself as she clearly wasn’t going to be happy unless I got the exact thing she wanted.

Mainly, I’ve gotten good at sitting around and pretending that I’m busy. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dossing off as all my tasks are completed, it’s just that there isn’t enough work for me. I’m using my downtime to write those articles, which are still just sat in a file on the shared drive because they need to be translated into Chinese before we can post them. I’ve been finishing that online communications strategy that the supervisor doesn’t want to see. I’ve been working on my dissertation at work.

It’s a little demoralising, actually, because I have so much more to offer. The other day, I was given one task at 5.55pm. That was my first task of the day and do you know what it was? Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito.

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Finding an image of a pretty person eating a burrito is actually a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also incredibly funny. Here’s one of the gems that I came across.

Everyone in my office naps and the supervisor doesn’t mind. It genuinely seems like the emphasis on ‘good work’ is just about showing up – which, even then, my office isn’t great at. For the first week I arrived on time, only to wait in the corridor for 30-40 minutes until a keyholder decided to come in.

I thought it might have just been me, or just my company, but it seems to be affecting the whole of Beijing. A colleague said it was the same for her at first, she had to adjust to the slower pace of life. It’s not that these people are lazy, they’re just really slow.

Except for the girls in our building, they very well may be lazy. It’s very rare to get a cubicle in the bathroom because people from the other offices disappear into them in order to have a smoke or play on their phone. I’m pretty sure even the cleaner uses her time in there as an unofficial break.

My friends all have similar stories. For example, when a receptionist was asked “Do you not want to do this and become better? People are unhappy with your work“, she responded ‘no, I’m fine like this.’

At a different friend’s office, he goes in around 10am, has a 2 hour lunch and leaves at 4pm. Even when he’s there, he barely has any work to do, so he’s in the same boat as me, just wasting a few hours less of his day doing nothing.

Then there’s the intern working in a hospital who pushes a button and waits for the machine to finish. That’s his whole job.

So, my impression is that the Chinese aren’t good workers. They’re happy to show up, because that’s how they get their money, but I don’t see any pride going into their work.

I know I’m wrong to generalise, and I’m sure this doesn’t apply to every individual in this nation. Certain sectors such as construction are probably a lot more hard-working and even though my experience of wait-staff is one of frustration (I’m looking at you, Taqueria), they seem to put the effort in.

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Being a Female in Beijing

 

Before coming to China, I had already mentally positioned the country as a half way point between the culture in the UK and the culture in Japan, but I was majorly wrong. The main difference that has struck me between Japan and China is that I don’t have to be conscious of my gender. It may sound ridiculous to you, depending where you come from, but I’m really bowled over by how little people care I’m a woman. That’s what I’m focusing on today, and this handy little bar chart from www.geert-hofstede.com is going to help me explain it.

hofstede for china

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions evaluate countries on specific scales that can dictate how society functions. We’ve all heard of ‘individualism’ and most have heard of the opposite end of the scale: ‘collectivism’, but this is actually only one of the six dimensions typically used by sociologists, anthropologists and many other kinds of ‘ologists’. Understanding how a country scores on each scale can facilitate understanding of the culture and is actually a pretty good starting ground if you are trying to understand a nation different to your own.

I want you to pay particular attention to the middle bars labelled ‘masculinity’. What does it mean? Traditional gender roles are a part of typically ‘masculine’ society, where men act as the bread-winner and women look after the family, but there’s more to it than that. Masculine societies are typically competitive with a focus on individual success and can be aggressively high-achievers. This applies for both men and women, where working long hours and focusing on quantifiable measures of success are common. In feminine societies people tend to be more concerned about liking what they are doing, rather than focusing on being successful. Lithuania (19), Denmark (16) and Iceland (10) all score low on masculinity; their citizens are less likely to look for praise, and that which benefits the most people is considered the best way.

My experience in Japan made me a bit apprehensive about Asian countries – which was completely nonsensical because even within Asia, Japan sticks out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, I came to China with some misguided expectations about what would and would not be okay for me to do as a woman. I think a large part of it came from concepts such as ‘leftover women’, historical depictions of foot-binding, killing daughters during the one-child policy, and maybe even Western fetishization of Chinese women.

Disclaimer: I’ve only been here for two weeks and may be naive. This is an opinion piece, and discussion is encouraged!

Fashion and Body Image

To start off, China scores the same for masculinity as the UK, meaning my role as a woman shouldn’t really change. Despite this, I have a lot more freedom about what clothes I wear. Wearing strappy tops or miniskirts don’t seem to incite the same reaction here as they do in the UK. Maybe the hot weather allows for skin to be shown, or maybe Chinese people aren’t as judgemental and quick to slut-shame.

One of my favourite things about Chinese fashion is the fad for see-through clothing, creating a layered effect where half the garment is solid and the other half gives a sneaky peak of the skin underneath. Technically you’re dressed from head to toe, but there’s actually quite a bit on show. Fashion is fun and experimental, seemingly without the risk of ‘asking for it’ and there seems to be a lot more allowance for personal taste as well. If your ‘thing’ is fashionable clothes with teddy bear appliqué no one’s going to mock you for it.

Women aren’t Objects

I feel zero pressure to ‘act like a lady’ here, unlike Japan. I remember trying to play pool in Japan and being extremely self-conscious about taking shots because it required bending over, and I was conscious that it may come across as flirtatious… despite being necessary to play the game. Pool was a very masculine sport and women were only really seen if they were taken there on a date, so it was a relief to find that I can have fun in China without worrying about how others perceive me.

Similarly, smoking in Japan is not something women do – unless they are edgy ‘gyaru’. I haven’t seen a lot of women smoking in China, but it is not uncommon and no one stares and judges me when I light up. If they did, maybe it would help me quit, but eh, for now I can do without the shame.

You know what else is great? Not getting felt up on the subway. People stare a bit because I’m White, but that quickly wears off. It’s never been sexual or predatory.

In Japan, I only got felt up on the train once, although you have to be on constant alert. It’s such a common thing that we learnt about it in our second year text book, and the train company has had to introduce female-only carriages to prevent the number of occurrences of ‘chikan’. They advise you to grab the man and pull him off the train yelling ‘chikan’ so that security can take care of it, but in such instances the woman still receives negative association, despite being the victim. Consequently, not many people are willing to confront the issue. I feel safe on the streets, in bars, and clubs. I don’t know whether workplace discrimination exists, but there are many working women who run shops, wait on, work in bakeries etc., and continues even after childbirth.

Essentially, Chinese people respect women as human beings, which is the biggest difference I have seen between China and Japan so far.

Business Seminar: Branding a Product In a New Market, Part 2

Okay, so last post I spoke about using the government’s five-year plan when entering the Chinese market, inspired by a talk from Arthur at Strategic Public Relations Group. Today I’m going to talk about how things can work in reverse – moving a Chinese company to the UK.

One member of the panel on Wednesday was Georgia Yaxley from Mobike (摩拜单车), who has just launched the brand in Manchester, UK. For those who don’t know, there are a few companies in China that allow you to rent out bikes anywhere at any time. They line the streets and can be picked up by anyone – all you need is your phone to unlock them and pay. The bikes are monitored over GPS so that the company knows where their bikes are at all times, although apparently this technology is exclusive to Mobike – other companies use the GPS on your phone and hope for the best.

Mobike has over 5 million bicycles in circulation throughout China and Singapore, making them one of the largest networks of IOT (internet of things). IOT has really taken prominence in research and design lately and some examples of the application include kettles that switch on when they know you are coming home, mobile apps that control central heating and there is talk of fridges that scan the barcodes of products put in, so that they can reorder foods when you are running low. It’s taking off, but a lot slower in the UK.

Part of Mobike’s success lies in the ease of purchase. Renting a bike is cheap and easy to do, as you only need to scan a QR code. Although most people are familiar with these codes, they are rarely used in the UK, which could cause a potential problem for the company. In order for people to see how efficient the system is, they first must know how to use QR codes and be willing to do so, so one of the first steps of marketing Mobike in the UK has been educating people on this ‘new’ method. Last year another company attempted to launch in London and did not last very long, as they had not prepared consumers. They showed up, presenting a different method than they knew and the lack of understanding led to an unsatisfactory uptake. From the sound of it, Mobike made sure that consumers knew exactly how to use the bikes and the app before launching.

Another important part of ensuring success was communication with local authorities. I’m sure it will shock no one when I say road rules are a lot more lax in China, so the idea of picking up a bike anywhere and then leaving it anywhere is a lot more feasible. In the UK, there are designated areas for everything. In order to ensure it works in the UK, Mobike have worked alongside the City of Manchester and City of Salford Councils, not only ensuring the bikes aren’t disruptive, but also feeding into cycle-to-work and green energy schemes. Thinking on this, I’m sure there are going to be more restrictions on UK cyclists than those in China, perhaps in the form of designated pick-up and drop-off points, that may impede the brand’s current way of working and inhibit how quickly they can expand the geographical area covered.

Finally, I want to talk about something Georgia mentioned about the ‘stigma of a Chinese company’. Even just that word – stigma – resonates with me. Everyone has a stereotype in their head of what China is like and how things function and, truthfully, that image is 10-20 years out of date. People still think of the ‘made in China’ label and use it to represent different prejudices – the quality is inferior, the service is bad, the employers are poorly treated – and trying to tell the world that ‘made in China’ doesn’t mean that anymore is a hard job. Changing people’s opinion is hard because they don’t like to feel that they were wrong. Rather than tackling this head-on, Mobike has opted to remove many of the overtly Chinese elements from their marketing. It’s an unfortunate but wise business move as the West doesn’t currently respect Chinese business as much as they should. I’m hoping this will change in the future as more and more brands emerge, showcasing top-quality and this may be one way to do that. Establishing Mobike as a familiar brand, only to later find out that the firm you have given your loyalty is Chinese could open up your perspective. I hope so.

Business Seminar: Branding a Product In a New Market, Part 1

Last night was the first event hosted by CRCC during my time here. I was quite excited as it was a business seminar based on branding an international product in China and vice versa, which is essentially what my entire degree is about!

We began with a talk from Arthur Hagopian from Strategic Public Relations Group, which covered the basics of the marcom (marketing communications) mix and how it needs to be tweaked for the Chinese market. He mentioned a particular case he worked on with is client Merz, an American pharmaceutical company whose global brand revolves around the idea of ‘curiosity’. Bringing this to China was a delicate matter, as curiosity is something acceptable in moderation, but could lead to some serious culture clashes if handled poorly. The way around this was to tap into a ‘childlike wonder’, which would be acceptable in the majority of countries around the world.

Most of what Arthur said was common sense if you have a background in marketing, but one thing he said stood out as something I had not considered before. The Chinese government focus on five-year plans, which are goals for social and economic development in the medium-term. As such, companies that are aligned with the government goals are more likely to have an easier time entering China. I’ve done a little bit of investigation and China’s current plan for 2016-2020 is focusing on the following areas:

  1. Innovation (modernising practice)
  2. Balance (bridging the welfare gap between urban and rural)
  3. Green (developing environmental tech)
  4. Opening up (increased international cooperation)
  5. Sharing (sharing the wealth)

There are two points on these that I think international companies are likely to neglect; namely, the welfare gap between urban and rural, as well as international cooperation.

Now I know what you’re thinking – surely the ‘international cooperation’ box is ticked by the very nature of the relationship – but it is a bit more nuanced than that. The keyword is ‘cooperation’, meaning that you can’t just enter China and do your own thing. You have to work alongside the government, work alongside Chinese investors, franchisees, and joint ventures. No one knows China better than the Chinese and setting up independently is almost certainly a recipe for failure. ASOS learnt that the hard way last year when poor research into competition and consumer behaviour resulted in them pulling out of the market with a £4m loss.

So how does an international company get around this? Typically we’re told that FDI (foreign direct investment) and joint ventures are the way to go.  FDI is flawed in that firms try to maintain their independence, changing the company they buy to comply with the rules that work abroad – which is not so smart. Joint ventures allow you to access people with the cultural, legal and economic knowledge to adapt your strategy and make it work domestically; however, after a few years they will have learnt enough from you to terminate the relationship and develop their own method moving forward.

If you want to remain independent, at least use a Chinese PR firm. So many foreign firms are misinformed about China overall and tend to forget to segment the market on a national level. This is often seen from a socio-economic standpoint, where the cities are separated into tiers. Tier 1 consists of Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai, areas with dense populations and front of the curve when it comes to trends. Naturally, these cities are targeted for market entry, with the expectation that once success has been obtained, the brand can trickle down into Tier 2, and then Tier 3. This is just how it’s done, or so it seems.

As someone who comes from a rural area myself, I understand that certain things may be slower to catch on, but growing up in the middle of nowhere, I often coveted those products and services that weren’t available in my area. They would have made life easier, but instead, we had to look on as those in the cities that already had better opportunities were given even more. Even though I understand the safety of following the tried-and-tested tier system, I am interested in finding out if there are firms focusing on the lower tiers first. Is it feasible? If so, why and how does it affect future growth? This would, of course, be in line with the government initiative for balance and could potentially pose an alternative way to enter the market, even if it does appear riskier than following the crowd.

Following the presentation from Arthur, he was joined on a panel by Georgia Yexley who is part of the team exporting the Chinese company Mobike to the UK, as well as Zilin Wei (I think that’s his name) localises Chinese games for the foreign market. Mobike raised some very interesting issues both in China and abroad, but given how long this post is getting, I’ll write these up in Part Two, available tomorrow.